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Islamic State train attacker thwarted by three California men is convicted

A police officer inside a train in France where a terrorist attack was foiled by three California men
A police officer inside the train in France where an attack by an Islamic State operative was foiled by three young Californians.
(Associated Press)

A French court has convicted an Islamic State operative in a 2015 train attack that was foiled by three fast-acting young California men, whose heroics were turned into a film by Clint Eastwood.

The special terrorism court sentenced Morocco-born Ayoub Khazzani on Thursday to life in prison, with 22 years guaranteed behind bars.

Khazzani, who went to Syria as a jihadi after trafficking drugs in Spain, met his match in the train encounter with three childhood friends from California who took him down. Eastwood turned the face-off into the movie “The 15:17 to Paris.”

Three of Khazzani’s accomplices, who weren’t on the train, were convicted of complicity and handed prison sentences ranging from seven to 27 years.

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The verdict closed the monthlong trial of Khazzani for attempted terrorist murder. He had boarded the Amsterdam-to-Paris train Aug. 21, 2015, with an arsenal of weapons.

The court rejected Khazzani’s contention that he had changed his mind about carrying out the assault. He seriously wounded a French-American teacher who grabbed his Kalashnikov.

“I still feel lucky to be here. That’s what I’m focused on. Just feel lucky that I survived and just glad to be in France,” said Mark Moogalian, the teacher who was shot in the back with a hand gun. The bullet exited through his neck.

Few if any of the passengers in the train car would have reached their destination alive if the attack had gone off as planned, prosecutors, lawyers and some witnesses contended during the trial.

Khazzani, who was armed with an assault rifle, nearly 300 rounds of ammunition, a handgun and a box cutter when he boarded the train in Brussels, was tackled, choked and knocked unconscious with his own Kalashnikov by the two American servicemen and their friend.

The actions of Spencer Stone, a member of the U.S. Air Force; Alek Skarlatos, in the National Guard, and Anthony Sadler, a student, were a highlight of the trial, and their testimony captivated the courtroom. Stone fell ill upon arrival in France and eventually testified by video from California.

Three California men have been granted French citizenship for their role in thwarting a terror attack on a French train in 2015.

The plot described by the prosecution was chilling.

Investigators exposed an alleged network of connections that culminated, months after the train assault, in the coordinated terrorist attacks on a Paris concert venue, cafes and restaurants, and a sports stadium that left 130 people dead.

The train attack was allegedly organized by Abdelhamid Abaaoud, whom prosecutors said was the coordinator of the November 2015 bombings and shootings in Paris. Khazzani was with Abaaoud in Syria and traveled with him back to Brussels. He told the court that Abaaoud concocted the plan for the train attack, and he followed it to the letter — until, he said, he changed his mind.

“It was a very intense trial” because it was linked to the Paris attacks that lay ahead, said Thibault de Montbrial, the lawyer for the California trio and for Moogalian.

“The terror cell that came to Europe to kill Europeans had as a first step to kill inside the ... train,” he said, noting the prosecution’s contention that Khazzani had planned a mass attack in the railway carriage.

Flamenco guitars wail from open windows in this humid port city at Spain’s southern tip, where the local Spanish is accented with Arabic and the mountains of Morocco loom on the horizon, just across the Mediterranean Sea.

Khazzani’s testimony was often confused, but he agreed when the presiding judge said he appeared to be “a puppet” of Abaaoud, who was killed by French special forces shortly after the Paris massacre.

“I believed him. It’s stupid, but I believed,” he said during testimony in November.

Khazzani said Abaaoud told him to kill three to five American soldiers in the car, along with the “European Commission,” though no members of the commission were on the train. Abaaoud had told him they were responsible for bombings in Syria, including one of a mosque that Khazzani said triggered his wish for revenge.

It remained unclear at the trial’s end how he identified the vacationing Americans as servicemen, as he claimed he had, because they were in civilian clothes.

The presiding judge noted that he had more weapons than the terrorists who carried out the massacre in Paris’ Bataclan concert hall. Khazzani said Abaaoud had told him that that was how things were done in Syria.

The verdict came a day after 14 people were convicted of involvement in the January 2015 massacre at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and another deadly attack. All three attackers were killed.


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